In my mind dove season in West Texas is a September sport. It could involve some cool evenings, but more often than not I sweated under the not-yet-winter sun while buried in patches of six feet tall Helianthus annuus (the native sunflower). Or I sweated as I walked the dry creek bottoms of mesquite scrub corridors. Or I sweated buried up to my raised gun barrel among Johnson grass next to the infrequent stocktank. No matter what form it took, dove hunting involved sweat.
However, unlike Quail, Ducks, Deer or Rabbits, it felt right to sweat while hunting dove. In fact, the smell of perspiration + musty game vest + dove + old blood always brings a smile to my mouth and warmth to my soul. This olfactory experience evokes feelings in me – solid feelings, real-life feelings, feelings of accomplishment that can’t be equaled by earning money or accolades. Oddly, this sentiment was well-described by one of my non-hunting friends. I had spent an extended time describing to him the process of trip planning, hunting the game, collecting the quarry and then processing the meat for my family’s consumption. He looked thoughtful and then observed that this is something to take pride in, something that our forefathers knew as a worthy accomplishment, something that hearkens back to days before the soul-darkening that marked the advent of the industrial revolution. Each time I hunted, I would be renewed; it was that simple and that significant.
During my childhood, dove hunting involved one of three methods, mainly depending on time of day. Morning and early afternoon hunts took one of two forms, but began in the same way. We would walk through the back gate of my parents’ horse pasture into a mesquite scrubland. We would load our guns, form a line and begin walking through the trees and cactus. I shot more branches and leaves off of mesquite trees than I did dove, but I loved trying to guess what gaps they would go through next and thus have a load of shot waiting. If we were to continue ‘still hunting’, we would follow a tree-lined, dry creek bed that wound for three miles between cultivated fields of grain and cotton. As we walked, we would whistle or call as we lost sight of each other among the trees and thorns. It was inevitable that I would walk straight into a patch of prickly pear cactus, while staring at a nervous, head-bobbing bird in a mesquite. I would try and skirt the patch while keeping my game in sight. As the bird lifted from the branch, I would hear the characteristic whistle and glimpse the awkward, feather-in-every-direction, launch into the air.
Actually, as awkward as it appears, every takeoff by a dove is a marvel of perfect design for getting there-from-here in the smallest amount of time. A trip to ‘there’ almost always began with a dodge to the other side of a tree trunk. However, if my attention did not waver, I would see the telltale crouch indicating the imminent leap. My gun would be on my shoulder and the metallic click of the safety would barely precede the boom and the rattle of my Humpback Browning’s barrel-sliding, ejection system. The dove would disappear into a blizzard of gray and white feathers and there would be a pregnant pause followed by the thump of the deceased on the ground.
Other shots would come as dove whizzed left to right or right to left across the narrow openings between the mesquite trees. I would swing with the bird while they were zigzagging between the trees and slap the trigger when they entered a clearing. Because of their speed, they would, if hit, usually bounce into the next grove of trees and grass. Many times, I would have to call my Dad and brother over to help find the beautifully camouflaged object. Another indelible memory is the way in which my Father would hold his gun and kick impatiently at the tall stalks of grass. I loved the feel of the birds in the back pocket of my game vest, bouncing against my tail bone with each step and making me smile with that sense of shared experience with my brother and Dad. I love hunting alone – the feeling of a successful hunt accomplished by myself – but there is nothing that brings greater joy than sharing a hunt with someone who loves the chase as much as you.
Still hunting dove was not my favorite way to pursue this marvelous animal. Instead, I preferred to wait for them along their flight path between roosting site and feeding site or between feeding site and watering hole. I prefer to wait. Waiting lets me watch for my quarry, but it also lets me watch nature going about its business. I always get a thrill when I watch wild animals that do not know I am there. In the case of dove hunting as a boy, this could involve turning away from the Mesquite scrubland and going to sit in the grain or sunflower fields frequented by hungry dove.
So, the final method that we used to hunt Dove was my favorite. Unlike the first two approaches, this strategy involved first climbing into the back of my Dad’s 1963 Chevy pickup. As a kid, this started the trip off in a grand fashion. What kid doesn’t routinely bug their safety conscious parents to let them ride in the very back of their pickup? The wind would blow, the smell of whatever had been carried most recently in the bed of the pickup would waft up, and any little bits of hay, dry horse manure, etc would land in our eyes, nose and ears – for a kid, this is what dreams are made of. It would only take about 20 minutes to reach what we had named the ‘double-stocktank’; there was a body of more or less permanent water on either side of a 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide levee. My Dad would position one of us on each side of the levee. He would then place another person along the edge of the trees that bordered the north side of one stocktank and the last person on the creek bed leading up to the southern stocktank.